59 rebels killed in battle for city

Key points

• Militant arrests trigger gun battle in city of Nalchik

• Reports of Chechen units involved in the battle

• Russian commandos flown in to restore order

Key quote "Battles are currently under way virtually everywhere in Nalchik" - SENIOR RUSSIAN OFFICIAL

Story in full REBEL forces battled Russian troops for control of a provincial capital in the Caucasus yesterday, after seizing key government buildings in a dawn attack.

At least 59 rebels were killed, plus 12 members of the security forces and a number of civilians, as troops supported by tanks and helicopter gunships fought for the city of Nalchik, in the eastern province of Kabardino-Balkaria.

Early reports say the attackers included units from nearby Chechnya in what is the biggest rebel ground offensive for several years.

Police trapped in the city after a morning of mayhem beat off attacks by rebels while regular troops massed on the outskirts.

By nightfall, the entire city had been cordoned off and Moscow reported that militants were holding out in one pocket around a captured police station. There was no clear number for civilian casualties.

The battle raises fresh questions about Moscow's ability to control militants in the region, and would appear to confirm reports that the war in Chechnya has spread across the Caucasus.

Reports in Moscow say the fight was triggered by the arrest the day before of several Islamic militants - called Wahhabists after the form of the religion they follow - by local police.

Up to 200 rebels launched an offensive early yesterday morning to capture the interior ministry headquarters where the arrested men were being held. By mid-morning, the building had fallen and black smoke was billowing from the roof.

Fighting had also broken out around two police headquarters buildings and at the base of the FSB, the Russian secret service. Rebel units occupied much of the town, destroyed a communications tower and attacked the city's airport. "Battles are currently under way virtually everywhere in Nalchik," one official told the Russian media.

At midday, helicopter gunships were attacking rebel positions. With the attack on the airport repelled, 100 army commandos were flown in. They joined with tanks and armoured cars and pushed into the town centre in the afternoon.

Hospitals reported 70 casualties arriving, along with ten dead bodies. Thousands of children were bussed out of town after schools were evacuated.

By 3pm, as smoke and flames rose from several buildings in the town centre, President Vladimir Putin ordered the entire city blockaded.

Residents were reported to be cowering inside basements as sniper bullets ricocheted off their buildings. Cars were off the streets and shops closed, while state radio urged residents to stay in their homes.

Kabardino-Balkarian premier, Gennady Gubin, said the army would take back the town by nightfall.

Then a new rebel assault stormed a third police headquarters, with hostages taken as the rebels fought their way inside. The FSB announced its officers were holding out in their besieged headquarters.

The army said it had identified six separate rebel units across the city, putting overall numbers at up to 200.

By early evening, the army said its mobile units were in control of the streets, with rebel units holding just two strongholds, thought to be the interior ministry and the police HQ where hostages were kept.

Dmitry Kozak, Russian presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District, said: "The thugs who attacked the city's law enforcement establishments today have been for the most part dispersed."

Late last night the authorities announced that a single rebel stronghold, a police headquarters, was holding out, with 17 rebels captured.

With troops deployed in strength in Nalchik, and security forces across the region on full alert, Moscow should be back in control of the town by today.

The attack comes in a province that had until now been spared the years of fighting that have scarred Chechnya and much of the Caucasus.

But tensions have surfaced between Moscow and its mostly Muslim population in recent months over the decision to close some mosques, and after raids by security forces on suspected Chechen sympathisers.

Rebel groups have also attacked security forces in neighbouring Dagestan, where a fully-fledged guerrilla war is now in progress.

The ferocity of the rebel offensive, and the capacity of their units to launch it, is all the more surprising after a summer with no major rebel attacks.

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